Expenditure by the Office of the Commissioner of Police under former CoP Gary Griffith is the subject of an ongoing probe initiated by the Ministry of Finance.
A team of financial analysts, accountants and other experts from the Ministry of Finance are in the process of conducting a probe to review the millions of dollars in expenditure.
Last week, Minister of National Security Fitzgerald Hinds confirmed his ministry was consulting with the Finance Ministry in reviewing spending within the TTPS. Finance Minister Colm Imbert also confirmed the probe, noting that contract work, which increased from $54.1 million in 2018 to $88.8 million in 2021, was one of the areas of concern.
The issue of legal fees paid to hire external lawyers to represent the T&T Police Service (TTPS) has also come under scrutiny. Traditionally, the TTPS has always been represented in civil matters in the High Court by legal officers from the Solicitor General’s Department (SGD) and the Chief State Solicitor’s Office (CSSO) which fall under the Ministry of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs.
However, the SGD and CSSO, as well as lawyers from the TTPS’s Legal Department, were being bypassed and external lawyers were being hired to represent the TTPS in the High Court. The head of legal at the TTPS then was Christian Chandler.
Sources indicate that several senior attorneys from the SGD and CSSO raised concerns about this practice and policy, because it is the Attorney General who is responsible under the Constitution for the conduct of all civil proceedings against the State. Questions were also raised about whether or not a note was taken to Cabinet to facilitate the bypassing of the SGD and CSSO.
Legal officers from the SGD and CSSO are appointed by the independent Judicial and Legal Service Commission (JLSC) and report to the Solicitor General and Chief State Solicitor, which are independent offices protected by the Constitution.
Legal sources told Guardian Media that these legal officers are there to give objective legal advice to the AG, who is ultimately responsible for defending cases brought against State entities such as the Police Service. Compensation and legal costs are also paid by the AG’s Office and not the TTPS.
A source with knowledge of the procedural process said all employees of the State have to be represented by the independent offices of the SGD and CSSO which fall under the purview of the Ministry of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs.
“This is the established constitutional arrangement because the TTPS is part of the State. These are independent legal officers who are appointed by the JLSC. They provide independent legal advice and representation so that even if police officers were wrong, the matter can be objectively assessed by lawyers who are not part of the TTPS.”
The source said the reason for this legal relationship “is that it is the State that is liable for the unlawful conduct of agents and employees. This is illustrated by the fact that it is the State and not errant police officers who are responsible for paying the damages and compensation that are awarded by the court in cases of police brutality, malicious prosecution and breach of a person’s constitutional rights.”
The Ministry of Finance and other state entity probers are now trying to understand the “special arrangement” that allowed the bypassing of the Constitution and selection of external lawyers paid by the TTPS.
The TTPS has been represented by Chandler and lawyers from his legal department, as well as Joel Roper, an external attorney from private practice.
Roper, who operates out of Atlantic Law Chambers, landed several briefs and appeared in a number of high-profile cases for the TTPS.
Copies of High Court judgments showed that the TTPS was represented by external lawyers, one of whom is also acting as Griffith’s personal attorney.
Roper recently issued pre-action protocol letters against two people who made adverse comments about him on Facebook–Mark John Hamel-Smith of Bay Road, St James, and Kenlee Ramoutar, a security guard from Couva. He has also written pre-action protocol letters to several media houses on behalf of Griffith threatening to sue for defamation.
Concerns have been raised about Roper being retained to represent the TTPS in court whilst he, at the same time, acted as Griffith’s personal attorney.
According to Roper’s Linkedin profile, he graduated from Hugh Wooding Law School in 2012. To compound matters, Chandler was also Griffith’s personal lawyer before he was appointed as head of the TTPS’s legal department. Chandler had threatened to sue the Police Service Commission on behalf of Griffith prior to his appointment as CoP.
Chandler was recently detained and charged in relation to an incident aboard Chandler’s yacht off the Chaguaramas coast on August 5. He was slapped with five criminal charges arising out of the incident and is currently on $1 million bail. Chandler is scheduled to appear virtually before a Port-of-Spain magistrate on November 25 in the matter.
At least ten other people were also allegedly on board the vessel at the time of the incident, including the captain, a businessman and eight women ranging from ages 27-32, contrary to the public health regulations, which, at that time, limited the number of public gatherings to five people.
Chandler had proceeded on leave from the TTPS on August 16 pending the outcome of the investigation into the matter.
Under the State Liability and Proceedings Act, the SGD and CSSO should defend the State, a reputable legal mind with experience working for the state told Guardian Media.
Having provided legal services to government departments, offices and state agencies, the senior legal luminary said it was never a policy for the TTPS to retain private attorneys.
“I don’t know that practice. I don’t know where that practice has come from. I never knew that practice that the police can bypass the Solicitor General and Chief State and hire attorneys to represent the police. I never knew that because under the State Liability and Proceedings Act, we are the ones who represent the State in those matters.”
When police officers are sued, he said the act caters for this.
Once a matter is filed against the State, he said, “I don’t know if the Solicitor General and Chief State could be bypassed. If they feel there is some conflict of interest, they might then seek to have outside attorneys represent them and a case has to be made for that.
“If you look at that act…when they (public) sue the State, it then becomes in the name of the Attorney General and the police officers involved…and the State machinery, which is the Chief State and Solicitor General, will always then kick in to be the defence attorneys for the State. Police officers are not sued in their private capacity but as agents of the State.”
Told that the TTPS’ legal department in the last two years had retained private attorneys who were paid for their services through the TTPS, he said, “I know that in civil matters that the SG and Chief State…I would think are the sole representatives (for the State) unless they have some objection or whatever and then I presume the SG could waive and allow them to retain private attorneys.”
He added, “But I don’t know that in truth and in this instance, that they can go to private attorneys and bypass the SG and Chief State. That is news to me. I have never known that as the practice…because they are there to save taxpayers’ money et cetera. Why are you bypassing the State and going to private attorneys?”
The legal mind said these two independent offices offer expert advice and one has to find out “where is the real authority for where that goes.”
He stated that in the case of criminal matters, the TTPS also has the DPP to advise them.
“In civil matters, the Chief State Solicitor and Solicitor General advise ministries and state departments. That is how I have always known it. And nothing has changed from that.”
Legal Services collaborating
Contacted on the matter, Allanna Rivas, who is attached to the office of the TTPS’ Head of Legal Services, insisted that the offices of the SGD and CSSO “conduct matters with the full cooperation and assistance from the Legal Unit (TTPS) and vice-versa.”
She said matters of “high public interest and or sensitive matters, the outcome of which is likely to impact the State as a whole, requests for representation are made to the SGD and CSSO. As it pertains to the preparation of legal advice, same is obtained internally within the unit.”
Asked if the TTPS’ legal department has been bypassing the SGD and CSSO for independent legal advice and representation, Rivas wrote, “No.”
Questioned if the TTPS’s Legal Department had, in the last two years, retained private attorneys to represent the TTPS/CoP in High Court matters and if so, how many attorneys were hired, who they were, what were the value of the briefs and how many cases were victorious, Rivas wrote:
“TTPS’ records reflect the retention of 12 attorneys for this period. The total value of the briefs over the last two years amounts to approximately $1.1 million. Notwithstanding that the majority of the matters are still engaging the attention of the court, seven matters have been decided in the TTPS’ favour.”
Rivas did not provide any details regarding the court matters that went in favour of the TTPS.
As for the names of the attorneys who were hired by the TTPS, Rivas sidestepped this matter, advising that “the attorneys retained must first be informed prior to disclosing their names.”
Asked who footed the bills for the private attorneys and if the TTPS’ Legal Unit was given a budget to pay these lawyers, Rivas wrote:
“Some of the fees are paid by the TTPS under the line item ‘fees’, which includes legal fees, and some of the fees are paid by the Ministry of Attorney General and Legal Affairs.”
She stated that matters “brought against the office of the Commissioner of Police for administrative decisions taken by the TTPS are conducted by the Legal Department, such as judicial review matters, writs of habeas corpus and matters involving any administrative tribunal.”
In the last two years, Rivas stated, the TTPS’ record showed its Legal Unit “has represented the office of the CoP in approximately 110 writs of habeas corpus, one proceeds of crime application, 50 judicial review applications (promotions, transfer, disciplinary), and 45 judicial review applications (Freedom of Information) matter as at September 2021.”
Questioned about the last time the TTPS had sought representation from the SGD, Rivas maintained the TTPS “is still consistently represented by the SGD and CSSO in all matters of a constitutional nature.”
In August, Rivas stated that representation was requested for a judicial review matter.
Based on an examination of the TTPS’ record, Rivas stated that its Legal Unit “has sought representation from the SGD and CSSO which has assigned both in-house counsel and external/private attorneys in over 34 matters since 2019.”
Williams: No such practice under my watch
During his six-year tenure as acting CoP, Stephen Williams said it was never the practice of the TTPS to retain private attorneys to represent the Office of the Commissioner. He confirmed in an interview with Guardian Media that the established policy during his tenure was that the TTPS would seek legal representation from the SGD and CSSO. He said he had no authority to override that institutional arrangement and bypass those departments and hire external lawyers to represent police officers. He also had no idea how the CoP’s office under Griffith could do so.
“I can speak authoritatively for the period that I was head of the Police Service, that that was not the practice. I am actually unaware of any period of time that the Legal Department would have undertaken that type of activity because the State is entrusted with attorneys and once a matter is before the court, we normally engage the State to represent and the Attorney General’s Office according to what it may be…(they) may choose to retain a senior counsel from private to assist in a matter combining the State resources of State attorneys to work with a senior counsel who is in private practice.”
In matters where the TTPS had been sued or litigation brought against them, Williams said “representation would have been sought through the Solicitor General’s Department. So, the Legal Department effectively represents the Commissioner of Police before the Supreme Court.
“So, the dominant issue with the Legal Department when I was there, we had mostly serving police officers attached to the department.”
Williams said if the TTPS has a matter which requires legal services, its Legal Department would engage the Solicitor General’s Department for assistance and the AG, who is responsible for the SGD and CSSO, will decide whether the Solicitor General’s Department by itself will represent in a matter or they will retain a senior counsel from private practice to work with the Solicitor General’s Department.
“So, you may have attorneys from the Solicitor General’s Department working as instructing attorneys to a senior counsel who is in private practice who will take the lead on the matter…but not the Police Service going and retain those persons.”
Asked when the TTPS’ Legal Department can defend a matter, Williams said “generally, the Legal Department would not effectively represent on its own the Office of the Police Commissioner…unless it is a situation where the State hasn’t been engaged within the immediate position and you have to have an attorney present.”
He said there may be situations where an attorney from the TTPS’ Legal Department presents in court “while we would have been in the process of engaging the Solicitor General’s Department. It is almost like a stop-gap measure to ensure you have a presence, but not by way of saying you are not engaging the Solicitor General’s Department.”
Williams said this ensured that the TTPS’ Legal Department acted as a support mechanism to the SGD to provide representation for the Police Service.
Williams said, “If the Police Service engages an attorney directly, the funds have to come from the Police Service.”
Since retiring, however, Williams said he tries not to focus on the TTPS.
“If I pay attention, it will cause me severe pain and stress.”
AG, Chandler and Griffith silent
Section 76 (2) of the Constitution states the Attorney General is responsible for the administration of legal affairs in T&T and legal proceedings for and against the State shall be taken- (a) in the case of civil proceedings, in the name of the Attorney General (b) in the case of criminal proceedings, in the name of the State.
A legal source said all employees of the State have to be represented by the independent offices of the SGD and CSSO, which fall under the purview of the Ministry of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs.
This ensures that objective independent legal advice and representation is provided, as the legal officers in these departments are appointed by the JLSC and are not part of the TTPS.
Questions are being raised as to why the AG’s office allowed the TTPS’ bypassing of the Constitution and mechanisms of the State to select and retain external lawyers to represent the service. The auditors have, therefore, raised queries about the legal authority for such expenditure.
Whilst officials remain tight-lipped about the ongoing probe, sources within the TTPS have confirmed that legal fees to external attorneys are “under intense scrutiny.”
“If external counsel had to be retained, it was the AG who did it in consultation with the Solicitor General and not the TTPS,” one source said.
The Sunday Guardian repeatedly sought answers and clarification from AG Faris Al-Rawi to no avail. He refused to shed light on the mysterious circumstances in which the Solicitor General’s Department was bypassed. He had promised to answer Guardian Media last week but never did.
Al-Rawi first acknowledged receipt of the questions, which were sent via WhatsApp to him on October 8.
He replied to the message, “Headed into the Budget now.”
Guardian Media replied, “Ok, I will await your telephone call or written responses.”
The AG wrote, “Appreciated.”
Among the questions the AG read were:
1) How did Gary Griffith get a legal budget to pay external attorneys?
2) Where is the money coming from?
3) Was a note taken to Cabinet to facilitate this?
4) Can you say if an investigation is being conducted into the expenditure of the TTPS’s legal department?
Several calls to Al-Rawi’s cell phone thereafter went unanswered. He also did now respond to follow-up messages and an email. Additional questions sent to Al-Rawi on October 18 remained unread up to October 23. Repeated calls to Al-Rawi’s phone also went unanswered?
A WhatsApp message could not be sent to Finance Minister Colm Imbert’s cell phone since he blocked our number. He also did not answer calls.
On October 7, Guardian Media sent a list of questions via WhatsApp to Solicitor General Carol Hernandez, who read the message but did not reply. Contacted on her cellphone the following day, Hernandez said, “I have no comments on that. If I did not respond… I have nothing to say on that.”
Pressed on if she was absolutely sure she would not respond, Hernandez replied, “I am 100 per cent sure.”
Questions to Gary Griffith:
On October 13, questions were forwarded to Griffith on WhatsApp which showed two blue ticks as having been read, but he failed to reply.
Hours later, Griffith read a second message but did not respond, while efforts to reach him on his cell phone on October 14 and 18 were unsuccessful.
Griffith eventually blocked our number on WhatsApp.
These are the questions that Griffith read:
1) On what authority did the CoP’s office bypass the Solicitor General Department which has traditionally provided legal representation to the TTPS and started retaining external counsel?
2) Were you given any official correspondence or memorandum from the Attorney General advising of the new policy whereby the CoP’s office would be allowed to retain its own counsel to represent the TTPS?
3) Did you sanction the bypassing of the Solicitor General’s Department by the CoP’s office for legal representation or are you aware of who sanctioned this move to breach the constitutional arrangements that have governed the legal relationship between the AG and CoP’s office regarding legal representation?
4) Are you aware of a note being taken to Cabinet to facilitate or support the bypassing of the Solicitor General’s office regarding legal matters?
5) Is there any special budgetary provision for the Commissioner to retain his own lawyers?
6) Is there any special precedent for this type of arrangement under any other commissioner?
7) Can you say how many independent attorneys were hired since the restructuring of the TTPS’ legal department in 2019 and how many matters were handed out?
8) What was the cost of this exercise under your watch?
9) We understand that Joel Roper was one of the lawyers of choice retained by the TTPS’s Legal Unit to represent the CoP’s office. What was the basis for his selection? How was Roper selected and by whom?
Additional questions were sent to Griffith on October 18 but failed to go through as a result of being blocked on WhatsApp.
Questions to Christian Chandler:
1. How was Joel Roper selected as external counsel for the TTPS?
2. How is it that Joel Roper came to be paid by the TTPS and not the Ministry of the Attorney General?
3. Who authorised the bypassing of the Solicitor General and Chief State Solicitors departments, which traditionally provides legal representation for the State?
4. Who authorised you to retain external lawyers to act on behalf of the TTPS?
5) Who authorised payments for external attorneys hired by the TTPS?
6) Who selects the private attorneys?
8) What were the criteria used in selecting external attorneys?
Chandler also failed to respond to questions sent via text message on October 18. On October 19 and 20 emails were also forwarded to him which he did not acknowledge, while calls to his cellphone on these two days went unanswered. Voice messages were also not returned. This was prior to him being detained by police for questioning in the yacht incident.
Questions to Roper:
On Tuesday, Joel Roper, one of the attorneys who received TTPS briefs, was sent nine questions via WhatsApp by Guardian Media.
That same day, Roper was also contacted on his cellphone and asked to provide some clarity to the questions he had received.
Roper said he held discussions with attorney Keith Scotland (PNM Port-of-Spain South MP) regarding the questions and was awaiting his reply.
“I think that is prudent for me to do…to seek my own legal advice on the matter,” said Roper.
However, Roper set the record straight with regard to one question–if he had ever worked in Chandler’s law chambers.
“I sought to clarify that with Derek (Achong Guardian Media court reporter) I don’t work with him (Chandler)…I never have. I have always worked closely with Keith Scotland. All the rest of the questions, I would have to seek my own legal advice on because I know the matter (is) of public interest and national importance. I understand that and I appreciate the need to get to the bottom of things.”
Roper asked this reporter to call him the following day saying, “Perhaps I will get the requisite legal advice at that time.”
A subsequent WhatsApp message was sent to Roper at 6.09 pm asking if there was any feedback to his responses, which he read but did not reply to.
Another Guardian Media reporter sent a WhatsApp message to Roper on Thursday enquiring if he could respond by 2 pm that same day since there was a deadline to meet.
Roper replied in a message, “I spoke to my client and they advised that a response was already provided. Please contact the client for it. I was advised that a response was provided.”
The client that Roper referred to was the TTPS.